Of the many battles in the decade-long Syrian civil war, few have captured international attention like the Battle of Kobanî. Fought between September 2014 and January 2015 for control of the predominately Kurdish town of Kobanî, the battle pitted the then-ascendant Islamic State against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a left-wing Kurdish militia that controlled several predominately Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria (known to Kurds as Rojava — the west). The YPG’s all-women wing, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), featured prominently.
The image of young female fighters resisting the advance of ISIS, a group that enforced the most draconian forms of patriarchal rule and routinely used rape as a weapon of war, inspired many on the international left. Kurdish militias decimated ISIS’s ranks while building a radical enclave based on principles of direct democracy.
Yet the Kurds have also attracted some unlikely supporters — namely, those who would rather focus on what they’ve been against than what they’re fighting for.
The US military, hardly a fan of leftist revolutions, allied with the Kurds to counter ISIS after failing to come to an agreement with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. When President Trump pulled American forces from the Turkish border in the autumn of 2019, paving the way for an invasion by Turkish-backed Islamists, the national security establishment revolted, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigning. Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also expressed his solidarity with the “gallant Kurdish people.”
And earlier this week — a day before the sixth anniversary of the YPG’s victory over ISIS at Kobanî – news broke that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, are developing a television series based on Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Daughters of Kobani.
Western Encounters With Jihadi-Killing Girl Boss Snipers
While information on the Clinton’s project is scant and The Daughters of Kobani is yet to be released, Hollywood Reporter provided some details:
Daughters of Kobani is based on hundreds of hours of interviews and on-the-ground reporting about the all-female Kurdish militia who took on ISIS in Northern Syria and won. Following the unlikely showdown emerged a fighting force who spread their own political vision and established gender equality in their corner of the Middle East and beyond. In the process, they earned the respect — and significant military support — of U.S. Special Operations Forces.
The Clintons are not the first to attempt to tell the story of the YPJ. In 2018 there was a release of Les filles du soleil, written and directed by French actress Eva Husson, which portrayed a French journalist and her interactions with an all-female battalion. Another French production, 2019’s Sœurs d’armes, written by French feminist and arch-secularist Caroline Fourest, focused on two young French women who traveled to Rojava to fight alongside the female militias. In 2020, yet another production on Rojava was released, Hulu’s No Man’s Land, created by Ron Leshem, Maria Feldman, and Eitan Mansuri. This time the protagonist was a French man who journeys to Syria in search of his sister.
There are through lines in all these productions. First, they train their cameras on westerners, with the YPJ and the Syrian Civil War serving as romanticized backdrops. As one reviewer of No Man’s Land noted, “don’t be fooled into thinking that No Man’s Land is, on any level, the story of the YPJ, an elite unit of Kurdish freedom fighters, all women. It’s barely, if at all, a story about the Syrian civil war.”
Second, Kurdish involvement in these productions has been relatively limited. These are not Kurdish stories but stories about westerners’ interactions with the exotic. In the case of the two French productions, the stories seem to be more a thinly veiled salvo in their country’s “cultural wars” than an exploration of the Kurdish movement in Syria.
And, thirdly, they largely obscure the explicitly leftist politics of the Kurds in Syria. In its place we are presented with a generic, nonthreatening, and ultimately vacuous “fight for freedom” perhaps best summed up as “western encounters with Jihadi-killing girl boss snipers.”
Kobanî: A Clinton Production
So where does this leave us with The Daughters of Kobani? The author of the adapted book, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, is a close ally of Hillary Clinton and the epitome of elite “girl boss” feminism. An advocate of female empowerment through entrepreneurship, her literary debut, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (2011), told the story of an Afghan businesswoman operating under the strictures of the Taliban.
In 2015, she published another tome on female emancipation, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield — an uplifting story of women deployed in combat roles in Afghanistan that earned endorsements and blurbs from such luminaries as Senator John McCain and Sheryl Sandberg.
The Daughters of Kobani, to be fair, won’t be released until next month. However, one might be forgiven for suspecting that the anti-capitalistm of the YPG and YPJ — which draws on the work of Brooklyn-born anarchist Murray Bookchin and the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization that has waged war against Ankara since 1984 and that the United States sees as a terrorist organization — will be omitted in favor of one that focuses on “girls kicking ass.”
The extensive role of female fighters in Kobanî wasn’t some historical aberration, a curiosity brought about by the peculiarities of the Syrian civil war and discovered by Western elites. In the 1970s and ’80s, several left-wing Kurdish political organizations maintained armed female units, most notably the Iranian-based group Komala. The female fighters of the YPJ can trace their historical lineage back to the PKK, which has a long tradition of female participation.
This brings us to the involvement of the Clintons and the historical irony it presents. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s administration sold and transferred vast amounts of weapons to Turkey, weapons that were primarily used in Ankara’s fight against the PKK. American intelligence proved critical in the capture of Abdullah Öcalan by Turkish special forces in 1999.
Of course, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton aren’t responsible for the actions of Bill Clinton. But it will be more than a little interesting to see how they tackle, for instance, the figure of Öcalan — someone venerated by the fighters of the YPJ yet reviled by the United States.
Many Kurds will be pleased at any mention of their community in western culture considering their all most complete absence. As Kurdish filmmaker Beri Shalmashi points out, “Ten years ago we were pleased just to have the name Kurd mentioned.” I can attest to this myself: I felt an almost irrational excitement when Cotyar Ghazi, a character in the popular Expanse series of novels, was revealed to be of Kurdish descent. There will also be some who feel a sense of satisfaction at the apoplectic rage that news of the production has triggered in the Turkish press.
Yet there is little reason to hope that a Clinton-led production based on a book by an establishment journalist will address the deficits found in earlier efforts to tell the story of Rojava’s female fighters. More than likely, we will get a romantic fantasy of the Kurdish female fighter that obfuscates the real struggle in Syria and incorporates it into a broader “war on terrorism” that serves the interests of militarists like the Clintons.
And the vision of an egalitarian society for which the men and women of Kobanȋ have fought – a vision that is antithetical to Clintonian liberalism – will be hidden, once again, behind a veil of sanitized and exoticized cliches.